Saturday, 25 May 2013

Grey Pareee

As the rain beats down and the noses run and the gas meter spins, May is drawing to a close. Cannes was a washout but some good films are coming out of it - very excited about this documentary of Paris: they got the colours right!

Jolly grey.  

Seems the rain and the credit crunch have not affected LV's fans on the Champs Elysées. Incroyable:

No comment.

This little bouquin caught my eye, amongst all the rhapsodic love letters to the city, here is a book of anecdotes about not being so keen on Paris. One to read tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle in June perhaps.

I've been there.

Merci Paris, on boulevard Beaumarchais in the 11e. Haven in the storm and aspirational treasure trove of unattanaible goodies. Also a used book café with a great selection of books in French and some English and other foreign language. Cosy!

Merci used book café

The garden of the café du potager at Merci. Verdant!

Dream summer outfit. Dream weather not included obv.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The new May

The dream
Our trip to Normandy marked the first time the Boy felt the sand between his toes and streaked across the beach to paddle in icy water. I have an unexplainable obsession that childhood should involve as much time as possible running around on a beach, whatever the weather. I did grow up a mile from the sea, although admittedly that stretch of coast was more The Sea The Sea than The Beach, with nary a grain of sand for miles upon miles of rugged pebbles and assorted nuclear power stations. Still. The seaside is the seaside, and I suppose it's also the exact opposite of my babies' year-round urban habitat with only hard wood floors and concrete beneath their feet.

Those few short minutes of sandy freedom before the heavens opened again and we piled into our soggy wagon with teeth chattering were fantastic. Last summer was all about LaBaby's imminent and then actual arrival, and I felt we deprived the Boy of a proper childhood summer - we stayed in Paris for the birth in July and by the time we emerged from the baby haze winter had blown into town (that would be August).

This year I am determined to make up for it and give both the children a chance to escape apartment life and let their hair down somewhere I don't have to have a wrist strap on them at all times. I want the boy to go all Chariots of Fire again and shriek with sheer joy as his little legs carry him through the shallows. His face registering a hitherto unseen primal happiness as he pauses for breath before charging back into the waves.

This year we have gone all out and booked two holidays to the Atlantic coast - to the bay of Arcachon near Bordeaux, and later to La Rochelle, all in the hopes of seeing that look on his face again, for more than just an hour. My only fear now is for the weather which.... I can't even contemplate really, the tragedy of our current weather system is too horrendous for words.  Is there any fate worse than being under house-arrest for a three day weekend with 2 toddlers while the rain beats your windows and you watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the fifth time?* Well actually yes...
I think this pretty much says it all:

The reality: out and about in May

*fully aware that there are many worse fates, and am particularly mindful of these victims and their families in Oklahoma right now.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Ruby slippers

Almost 5 years ago, I started work at a small Parisian company based in the Marais. On the first Monday, as on every subsequent Monday for the best part of four years, I sat at the circular marble table, très design, with my ten or so colleagues as we discussed projects and planned out the week. On that first Monday, during an absent-minded moment, I found myself looking under the table, at all our feet. There they were, 18 low-heeled black shoes, like the spokes of a wheel. Each of them chic and correct and comme il faut. Completing the circle of footwear, were my two pink Mary-Janes with a t-bar and contrasting tights. Quelle horreur. I was different, and it showed from my head right down to my fuschia pink toes. For the record, I was almost certainly wearing all black or navy from the ankle upwards, so I was never exactly punky, or even trendy or an all out dandy. But I was certainly une "Anglosaxone".

This had already been established at a previous company (a large French institution) where they interviewed me for a job and hired me, only to decide at the last minute that they weren't actually able to take on an "Anglosaxon" and had to find someone French. I'm pretty sure it wasn't "legal" to decide based on ethnicity, and to say so to my face, but the culture was not yet anything like the UK or the US where such fears would come into play. They could hire out the parts of the job that needed English to an outside freelance or partner agency. Luckily I found another company willing and actively looking to hire an English speaker.

At work as at home in my quartier, I felt slightly oppressed by our decision to try and 'go native' and fit in, not to seek out anglophones but to try and fully immerse ourselves into our adoptive city, language and culture. We saw only French films, or even, disastrously, English films dubbed into French. We read newspapers, books, magazines only in French, subjected ourselves to French television and even got hooked on Nouvelle Star. We saw only our pre-existing English friends and otherwise sought the company of only French speakers. We didn't go back to England for the first 6 months. It was lonely and a complete culture shock for me. It was hard to make friends, we saw some French cousins of OhPapa's, and some language exchange acquaintances, and we started to be friendly with a few neighbours and work friends. It was hard work to establish common interests, find shared references, and we felt a bit apart from life and lonely, and I lost heart for a long time.

Five years down the line, I know how wrong our approach was. Our unique selling point at work was being English, not competing with French candidates on their own territory. At work, our language, connections and perspective were useful because and not in spite of the fact that we were British, and in our daily lives and friendships we should have embraced that just as much. Befriending fellow expats has in fact led us to meet more French friends because they have an interest in meeting us for who we are, and we naturally met people with an interest in meeting foreigners. It helps too that the last five years have seen a real surge of "anglos" becoming leaders in various industries in France, opening doors and inspiring more interest in and acceptance of anglo culture. Some of Paris's trendiest restaurants and wine bars are run by "Anglosaxons", and now more than ever the wider impact of the non-francophone world is being felt. There is an increasing anglo community of people that are not afraid to show their roots and celebrate their differences. And Nathalie Portman's moving here! Call me! There are still huge cultural differences, and they are to be celebrated all the more as our world moves ever closer to homogeny. And they will of course form the basis of much of my ranting in this space! But my pink shoes are still going strong and I'm happy they are finding other colourful friends to hang out with.

Friday, 17 May 2013

La Belle et le Bad Boy

Two heads are better than one 
OhBoy has not always been ecstatic about becoming an older brother. In fact he took it rather terribly badly. Despite months of reading proud big brother books and preparing things for the imminent arrival, when LaBaby and I arrived back from the hospital for the first time, the grand frère was not altogether welcoming. To be fair, it was the day of his second birthday, and LaBaby was not at the top of his present wish list. He sobbed and sobbed and looked from me to the baby with mournful and accusing eyes, and then sobbed some more. "No baby, no, don't want no more!" he wailed as he tried to hurl her from the sofa. It was heartbreaking and terrible at the time, and I spent a long time feeling guilty at "betraying" him this way, on top of having left him to go back to work.

Some wise French doctors and "psys" have in the intervening months let me know that it's often the way; the revered childhood expert Françoise Dolto stated that the arrival of a new sibling is akin to a wife coming home to find her husband has taken a second bride. Not pleasant at the best of times and especially hard to deal with amidst other stressful two year old troubles like learning to talk and control one's bowel movements.

Some children appear to internalise their angst, becoming Mama's best little helper as a way of ensuring they are not replaced and summarily flung from the family nest. Not our boy. How I laughed as read the expert suggestions to ask your toddler to "do a quiet activity nearby" as you feed the baby, or "involve him as much as possible in the care of the baby". If LaBaby has survived nearly to her first birthday, I fear it is no thanks to her older brother. She has however learned to dodge all manner of ballistics sent her way, and to set off her own "LaBaby alarm"TM with a high pitched siren scream at the merest hint of an incoming fraternal attack. OhBoy's brothering style has been more one of open outrage and manipulation, as he seeks more and more varied methods of distracting attention and ensuring LaBaby knows she is numéro deux in these parts. Recently he has taken to announcing his dark plans before he executes them- "LaBaby! I'm going to push her!" or "Oh, the dinosaur! I'm going to snatch it!" he declares before pouncing. There are also glimmers of hope, as LaBaby becomes more interactive, they are beginning to have some moments of sibling complicity, and there are lots of hysterical bouts of laughter as well as the daily tussles and karate chops.

Today's trip back from the crèche was a big test for the boy - the double push chair has got a flat tyre, so they had to ride back together in a single. The call to responsibility paid off and he clutched her round the middle and kissed her and giggled all the way home. I had a birdseye view of my progeny snuggled up on their little seat - and I had time to marvel at the fact these two not so very little heads recently made their way out of my body. I wonder how long before that image wears off? They have that in common, and many more things I hope will become apparent as they grow together petit à petit.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Famille Nombreuse in Normandy

Hair and clouds on the beach
We went to visit OhPapa's French cousins in Normandy for a few days over the bank holiday, three days of light rain, intermittent shine, and lots of firsts for OhBoy. At the ripe old age of nearly 3, he had his first ice-cream cone on the beach, first swim in the sea, and first nip on the toe by a nasty crab. Also first time realising that cows lie down when it's about to rain (read : all the time).

We were in a tiny village on a northeast tip of Normandy, and it was more of a gust than a breath of fresh air to be out of town and in the veritable middle of nowhere for the first time in months. The weather was freezing to mild and we were very hardy about our outdoor picnics and sea paddling, inevitably leading to a couple of hacking coughs and some very soggy clothes in the 'car' on the way back. Our car was something of a sensation in the village, the sight of four people crammed into a 1990s Suzuki wagon which is just large enough to seat the OhBoy in the back in his seat with his heels on OhPapa's shoulders in the front was clearly not the usual mode of transport for Parisian weekenders.

The countryside was vivid green (how could it not be with this monsoon?) and chock full of Normandy cows in creams and browns, the font of all the delicious local cheeses, Pont l'Evèque being a particular favourite.   Winding roads lead round cattle meadows to steep pebble beaches on inlets between sheer chalk cliffs.

It was really all about the van
I adore visiting the cousins, a French famille nombreuse par excellence, with ten children and 25 grandchildren, it's the family I always dreamed of belonging to. With a constant supply of playmates in the garden and a crockpot bubbling in the kitchen to serve the ever increasing number of mouths at dinner, OhBoy and LaBaby were incorporated into the mass. Maman had a bit of a rest while LaBaby was passed around the many pairs of arms, and the Boy spent the whole time bossily addressing all of them as "children!" - which was certainly easier than learning all the names, I agree. "Children! You coming in the garden?", "Children! Let's go!"

The matriarch of the family is basically one of the wonders of the world, slim and beautiful in her seventies and cool as a cucumber about the dozens of her progeny (plus extras) that littered her garden. She does mealtimes simply and deliciously, whipping up tarts and salads effortlessly and turning out tagines and frites at the drop of a hat before ringing an actual bell to round up the troops. I was literally taking notes on a pad, jotting down recipes as I watched her prepare things for the weekend, I noticed she was not afraid to cut corners and make things as easy as possible, which I admire endlessly. Presentation was important but not overdone, preparation was everything. Pudding was often a tray of shop-bought brownies which were cut up and sprinkled with cocoa powder, or a bag of oranges chopped and mixed with some cointreau and apple juice for a fresh and summery palate cleanser. Cheese was of course, key.

In many ways it was an inspiring stay, and we returned to town with a resolve to be less stressed by the little things (the kids?!), more active (get up earlier!) and to have a huge family of never-ending children. The last part was a joke on OhPapa's part I'm sure. He is hilarious when he wants to be.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Do as I say (not as I do!)

Life with my 2 year old is often fraught with harrowing moments of self recognition, when something he does shows me just how much of our own behaviour he is absorbing, seemingly without results, until it resurfaces unannounced and not always the most opportune moment. The Boy does an uncanny impression of me shrieking for OhPapa down the corridor, something between Sybil Fawlty and Fred Flinstone. He is fascinated by what we call each other, rather than what we tell him to call us. He used to call me Mama, which I loved, but he has picked up Maman from other children and seems to be sticking with that although he uses my first name when he's cross with me (!), and the next time we go back to England I'm sure he'll switch to Mum again to be cool.

It's basically terrifying to see how much he is more affected by what we do as opposed to what we say to him. It's the part I find hardest about the parenting deal, having to become a better person, to model the desired behaviour and stick to it every minute of the day. And there's just no getting around it! For example, I don't want him to think it's "ok" to sit and stare at a computer screen every spare second (my default position), so I have to try and limit my own screen time to his naptime and after he's gone to bed. I have tried to hide any (all the) junk food I eat (and the one time he found a packet of crisps in the kitchen, he came running to me and said  "Here are your treats Maman", slightly terrified - clearly he knows not to come between a Mama bear and her snacks.)  I want him to be a better version of us, I guess every parent does - but I suppose it's only a matter of time before the truth is revealed. I don't think I could fake being a musical genius or an intellectual, could I?! Imagine saying "Ok I'm off to practice the piano", tucking a musical score under your arm and shutting yourself in a room with some Chopin blaring on a secret iPod, every day. It's not tenable! The best I can do is that he sees me reading my Kindle a lot, although he's not to know my reading material is more Gina than Ford Madox, Ford.

Then there are the really shameful moments of imitating bad language or behaviour. There have been a couple of F-bombs that slipped out when were in stressful driving situations in the car, and I just know one of these is going to come back at us when we're least expecting it. There has been a nasty "shut up" incident too which I'm not looking forward to revisiting. Today he said "oh no Maman you have messy sh*t on your jumper?" I hope and pray and am going to go ahead and assume he meant shirt?? He learns from the dvds he watches too - frighteningly so. There was an unfortunate phase he went through of saying "It's not funny!" to everyone (mostly old ladies in the supermarket who were less than amused to have that barked back at their friendly "Bonjour, jeune homme". That came from Peppa Pig of all innocuous places, but then there are some I'm not even sure where they've emanated from, like a very southern American drawling "Hush your mouth"and "You're a real cute girl, Maman". Some are more welcome than others obviously!

There are times that the learned behaviour is something that you can be proud of. Whenever I thank him he always replies "you're very very welcome, Maman." And my heart melts when he calls his sister "my little darling" and is kind to her like we are. Better than a poke in the eye, as they say (and that literally is the other option in this case).

Finally though, there are the ones that you don't really know what to do with...

As he sits in the bath and puts a cup to his chest and says matter of factly,
"I'm just pumping my milk!"

Friday, 3 May 2013

Le Musée en Herbe

OhBoy and friend contemplate Chagall's oeuvre before consuming art supplies
As part of our spring action plan to get into town more and enjoy some culture without having to leave the children behind,  OhBoy and I went to a Wednesday afternoon atelier at the Musée en Herbe. I had been looking for reasons to say "atelier" a lot, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.  As he was be-smocked and the teacher whisked out some reproductions of Chagall paintings, I felt so so very smug. There I was, taking pictures of my two year old in a smock while he modeled clay and painted Chagall's blue house in a musée near the Palais Royal. How do you like me now, Mummy and Me yoga in Queen's Park?!

OhBoy looked so adorable with his classmates and seemed to understand the gist of what was going on, although I think we do have some work to do on some basic French vocabulary before he starts school or he will be lost in the classroom in full immersion mode.

The novelty of the new setting and the unknown authority figure lasted about 20 minutes which was certainly more than I expected. It did however leave another 25 minutes of increasing restlessness, a lot of shouting "WAT?" (rhymes with "bat") after each instruction and finally, ingestion of the beads that were supposed to be decorating Chagalls's chicken man. (I think that's what that was). I was also thinking "WAT" for much of the time.

The session ended with OhBoy running full tilt through a beaded curtain into the gallery, trailing gluey feathers and chicken feet. The teacher was very patient. I was inspired to try and be a bit more relaxed about messy projects at home, the most I've allowed so far is colouring with washable crayons and some occasional "bean play" which is probably why he went to town when the glue came out. I so want to be the mother who dons overalls and a kerchief and is blasé about paint on the carpet and felt-tip up the walls, but really my comfort zone seems to be a nicely organised atelier in the 1er arrondissement and a laundry room to hose down in before home time.

All in all, it was good value at 10 euros for an afternoon's education, and surprisingly stress-free apart from the million and one stairs to hike up and down on the metro to get there.
I feel atelier fever coming on,  especially with school looming and all those free Wednesdays to fill with productive activities, somewhere other than chez nous.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Bravo Docteur!

Où est Bernard?
OhBoy had to have an injection today, so we made our way to the doctor's office armed with the vaccine (it's bring your own) and his carnet de santé, and one million plastic dinosaurs. Thankfully the waiting room was empty when we arrived so he felt free to leap and rampage and destroy the magazines unimpeded. Until we were joined by Bernard. A grey-haired gentleman, with copious mustache and hirsute ears and nose pores who had evidently left his child-rearing days a long way behind him, made a bee line for the corner and buried his muzzle in Le Point.

After an obligatory silent observation period, "MAN!" OhBoy shouted in English, I will spare you the capitals for his entire dialogue, but suffice to say the boy is always using his outdoor voice. "Hello, Man! Whasyourname Man?... Maman! See the man there!"
Bernard (for it was he) remained stoically silent, despite the fact he was less than 3 feet away from a small stick of dynamite clothed in Petit Bateau. "Wazyourname?? I'm Boy!... I'm Boy! (the second time he pronounced his name in French for good measure)" "Maman, who's that?" A tiny finger, held very close to his cheek, gestured in Bernard's direction.
Maman remained stoically silent, despite the fact I was less than 3 feet away both from OhBoy and from the overpowering reek of leek and potato soup coming off Bernard. As happens so often,  I felt rooted to the spot, zapped by the pure exuberance of OhBoy in these situations. I hope I'm coming off more zen than irresponsible.

OhBoy arab-springed over to Bernard's side of the room and peered around Le Point. Maman was, once again, strangely slow to react, but had time to pray he wouldn't comment on the soup-stench. "What's your name, man?" - Silence. And then...
"Bernard." said Bernard.  " toi?" Bernard looked pretty zapped himself at this point.
"I'm Boy!" shrieked OhBoy, delighted. The doctor came in and called Bernard into his office ahead of us, leaving us to read "Où est Charlie?" while Bernard's legume smell dissipated.

When our turn came the Boy was very brave and too intent on grilling the doctor on his name and that of every object in the room to pay much attention to the enormous needle going into his thigh. "Well done darling, you're a brave boy" I whispered as a plaster was applied to the injection site. "Bravo docteur!" he said, "you're a brave boy too!"

"Au revoir Madame", the brave medic said as he saw us out, and then, conspiratorially, "That one needs to smoke some "marijuana"!"

"Thank you Doctor. I'll take a prescription..."